Sterilize chronically abusive parents

May 23, 2007 | By | 11 Replies More

We like to think of Mother’s Day and Father’s Day as days when young children give lots of hugs to their loving parents.  We don’t like to consider that these days are also days when thousands of innocent children are beaten by their parents, their anguished cries often not heard outside of their dysfunctional homes.  Saddest of all, these children are condemned to be beaten and screamed at by the people they trust most. 

In 1988, I was waiting for an elevator at the State office building where I worked as an Assistant Attorney General. Many social workers had their offices in the same building, and several of those social workers were also waiting for an elevator.

All of a sudden, a middle-aged man started yelling at a three-year-old boy, who started crying.  The boy weighed about 40 pounds.  The man quickly got angrier and started smacking the boy violently with the palm of his hand-maybe it was his fist.  Whump! Whump! Whump!   The little boy was now breathless and whimpering.  Like the other half-dozen people waiting for an elevator, however, I did nothing but stand there horrified.  The man cocked his arm back to strike the boy yet again when one of the social workers jumped forward and yelled at the man: “Stop hitting that child!”

With that, the man looked confused, then angry, then more confused, then meek.  The social worker further instructed him: “follow me.” The man followed the social worker, presumably to the social worker’s office.  It did not appear that the social worker knew this man.  This social worker, now a hero in my mind, stepped forward because it was the right thing to do.  He intervened because there was a child being mistreated.  It was that simple.

I am not proud of the fact that I stood there doing nothing while the man repeatedly struck the fragile little boy.  There was a window of 15 to 20 seconds during which I could’ve simply stepped up and told the man to stop.  Why not?  What did I have to lose by trying? 

I was not the first person to freeze when I was uncertain of what to do.  As Robert Cialdini writes in Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (1984), whenever we are unsure of ourselves, “when the situation is unclear or ambiguous, when uncertainty reigns, we are most likely to look to and accept the actions of others as correct.. . . especially in an ambiguous situation, the tendency for everyone to be looking to see what everyone else is doing can lead to a fascinating phenomenon called “pluralistic ignorance. [This phenomenon of pluralistic ignorance explains] the failure of entire groups of bystanders to aid victims in agonizing need of help.” 

(Page 129)  The classic case of this was the homicide of Catherine Genovese, who died in Queens, New York City, when at least a dozen people failed to pick up their phones to call the police, even though they heard the awful and unmistakable sounds of Ms. Genovese being viciously attacked.  Cialdini explains this phenomenon further:

In times of uncertainty, the natural tendency is to look around at the actions of others for clues.  We can learn, from the way the other witnesses are reacting, whether the event is or is not an emergency.  What is easy to forget, though, is that everyone else observing the event is likely to be looking for social evidence, too.  And because we all prefer to appear poised and unflustered among others, we are likely to search for that evidence placidly, with brief camouflaged glances at those around us.  Therefore everyone is likely to see everyone else looking unruffled and failing to act.  As a result, and by the principle of social proof, the event will be roundly interpreted as a non-emergency . . . the fascinating upshot [of this phenomenon is that] the idea of “safety in numbers” may often be completely wrong.

While Cialdini’s book might explain my inaction, it does not excuse it.  My shame in not acting on that occasion has provoked me to speak up during a subsequent similar situation.  But speaking up does not necessarily solve any child-abuse problems.  Speaking up might only embarrass and frustrate the parent in public.  Who is to say that that an attempt at intervention won’t provoke that parent to simply go home where he or she will secretly beat the holy crap out of their child?

I recalled my own inaction when I recently heard of another child abuse incident through two friends of mine.  They were on public transportation when they heard a mother start screaming at a tiny child and beating him.  Not entirely certain of what to do, my friends turned around and glared at the woman, only to see that she had other small children in her care in addition to the small child she was attacking.  One of my friends looked straight at the woman and told her “you need to go to parenting classes.”  Predictably, this did not provoke goodwill on behalf of the woman.  In fact, it caused her to glare back at my friends.  As she left the train, my friends feared that the mother was going home where she could privately inflict more damage on her children.

Child abusers are cowards.  Through their actions, they claim that they have rights to beat and scream at children simply because they are the parents. Unfortunately, the courts show great deference to violent people just because the little people the adults are punching kicking and demeaning are their own children.  At Court, then, child abusers hide behind tiny human shields. “Judge, you wouldn’t want to break up our family, would you?”

Child abusers, even those who have been convicted of the crime of child abuse, even those who have had children removed from their own homes, are free to have more children.  And many of them do have more children.

A friend of mine works in a family court in a large city. He told me that he is surrounded by liberal-minded co-workers (many of them off-the-charts liberal), including many child welfare workers (those who work with abused and neglected children). I asked him what most of those liberal-minded child welfare workers think of mandatory sterilization of those parents who do grievous harm to their own children or kill them.  He said that most of his liberal co-workers are in favor of mandatory sterilization under those circumstances. His perception is that it only takes a few months of seeing the kinds of things that dangerously dysfunctional parents regularly do to innocent children before the most liberal social worker wants to shout: Stop! No more children! While I was going to law school, I worked in a Juvenile Court (this was 25 years ago) and I felt this way too. I know that most of the people with whom I worked back then (they were of a variety of political stripes) felt the same as me.

Of course, this is a highly contentious topic. Who wants to intervene in others’ reproductive choices?  On the other hand, this topic (abusive parents who keep having more children) is a topic on which our society should have an unblinkingly honestly conversation. When a parent kills his or her own child (not by an accident), should he or she be able to just keep having more children and abusing them too? The family courts are full of growing families who are repeat customers. The children who survive horrific abuse often go on to commit crimes of their own before settling in to have unplanned children of their own, which they themselves abuse. Some of those highly dysfunctional families are enormous (5 or 10 kids or more), and all 8, 9 or 10 of them can end up in family court to be tended to by the workers who shake their heads while doing what they can. In fact, there’s a common saying among many (liberal) child welfare workers: “Don’t breed them if you can’t feed them.”

How bad does child-abuse get?  You might not have the stomach for this dark reality, but consider reading the case studies found at this article at Wikipedia. (they are listed under the title “Notable incidents of child abuse”).  Then consider the grim statistics:

An estimated 872,000 children were determined to be victims of child abuse or neglect for 2004 . . . More than 60 percent of child victims were neglected by their parents or other caregivers. About 18 percent were physically abused, 10 percent were sexually abused, and 7 percent were emotionally maltreated. In addition, 15 percent were associated with “other” types of maltreatment based on specific State laws and policies. A child could be a victim of more than one type of maltreatment.

I have two young children (ages six and eight).  My wife and I work hard to nurture them and challenge them.  Doing this takes an enormous amount of discipline.  I could name a dozen All-Star parents that have inspired me to try to be a better parent myself.  None of them makes parenting look easy. Parenting is hard rowing, and there are not many shortcuts to doing the job well.  Feeding the children and giving them a place to sleep is the bare minimum.  In our competitive society, conscientious parents need to teach their children many skills they will need to survive as citizens and human beings.  After being a parent for a few months, I was startled to learn that being a good parent is as difficult as being a lawyer, a doctor or an airplane pilot.  Parenting is a profession that is equally exhausting.

Many people lack the basic skills to take care of children, however.  We occasionally see these parents in the relatively few places where socio-economic classes mix, such as on mass transit and sidewalks. When we see these parents lash out at their children, physically and emotionally, we want to run away and magically forget what we just saw.  It’s just too damned awful to contemplate what it’s like for those children to be stuck in those homes. 

So, what can we do about such dangerous parents?  For one, we need to realize that we, as a society, are standing around succumbing to “pluralistic ignorance.”  No one else is doing much of anything, so we don’t either.  There’s lots of miniature Catherine Genoveses getting hurt, and most of us are doing nothing but looking the other way.

This issue is not about inflicting reproductive restrictions upon people because they have fewer social economic resources or because they are of differing “races” (to me, “race” is a useless term).  What I am about to propose is equally relevant to every parent everywhere in America: Having children is a privilege and it triggers a heavy responsibility.  Parents who are documented child abusers should not be allowed to have more children. 

We commonly take away privileges when people demonstrate that they are unqualified to engage in dangerous activity.  Habitual drunks are not allowed to drive cars. Incompetent doctors and lawyers (at least the worst of them) are not allowed to continue practicing medicine or law. Similarly, incompetent parents should not be allowed to create additional children.  Here are my two proposals:

Proposal One

Any person who, on two or more occasions,

A) is convicted of child abuse or
B) who is deemed so incompetent as a parent that a court removes a child from his or her home for an extended period (e.g., more than six months)
should be sterilized. 

A parent qualifies if he or she has any two of the above—2 A’s, 2B’s or an A & a B.  The people to be sterilized would be those who have been convicted of child abuse or from whose homes the children were removed.  If both parents qualify, then both should be sterilized.

I fully understand that accusations are often thrown around as part of divorce cases.  Irate spouses sometimes accuse perfectly innocent people of abusing their children.  On the other hand, consider this situation: if a person is convicted of child abuse on one occasion and then has another child removed from their home, aren’t we fairly confident that this is not the sort of person who should be allowed to have custody of more children?

Proposal Two

We should institute government programs along the lines of Project Prevention.  Project prevention offers cash incentives to women who are addicted to drugs and/or alcohol to use long-term or permanent birth control.  Here’s an excerpt from an article describing the problem and Project Prevention’s solution:

After Cathy Mayne saw a flyer near her grandson’s elementary school that read, “If you’re addicted to drugs, get birth control — get cash!” she called CRACK on Nicole’s behalf. The organization’s premise is radical, if dizzyingly simple: CRACK gives addicts $200 (they’ll throw in an extra $50 if a participant recommends a friend) and sets up the medical procedures at a public hospital or clinic. All Nicole had to do was sign a release form, and two weeks later she had her tubes tied at a local hospital. She received a check the following month.

Here’s another article describing Project Prevention’s plan.  
Many organizations, such as the ACLU, strongly object to programs like Project Prevention.  See here, for example.  (and see here and here).  These sites argue that waving cash in front of crack addict is taking advantage of them.  I don’t agree.  In my opinion, if you can’t turn down $200 for immediate gratification, you’re not qualified to be a parent in the first place.  To be a real parent, you need to be able to exercise constant self-sacrifice.  The good parents I know say “no” to their own urges dozens of times every day.  Good parents constantly sacrifice their needs for those of their children.  Anything less characterizes an suspect parent.

Not too long ago, I compared the process for adopting a child from China to the ability of dangerous parents to have additional biological children.  My wife and I understood that we needed to be fully qualified and trustworthy in order to raise a child.  Therefore, we acquiesced to the Chinese requirement to produce a clean criminal record and to show that we were in good health, that we had people willing to step forward and recommend us as parents, and that we were willing to invite a social worker over for a home study.

How different it is when someone wants to have an additional child biologically! Under current law, it is no hurdle to having additional children that you have had 4, 5 or six children taken away from you because you have been declared dangerous.  It is no hurdle that you are constantly high on crack cocaine.  It is no hurdle that you allow your current children to wallow in their feces, that you’ve threatened to kill your them or that you are screwing them up so badly that they will never have a chance to take advantage of any school, no matter how good.  Under current law, you can have more of your own biological children no matter how crappy and dangerous you are as a parent.

The topic of eligibility requirements for having one’s own biological baby is truly a 3rd rail of American politics.  So much so, that we can’t even discuss the possibility of requiring the sterilization of people who are certified as likely to maim or kill their own children.  Oh, well, I just mentioned it. How awful that I would dare to suggest that to have biological children, a potential parent must not have a track record of hurting or killing his/her own children! The widespread reluctance to discuss this issue surprises me, because people convicted of child abuse aren’t noted for having a strong governmental lobby.  Anyway, it’s time to start this conversation.

Allowing parents who are dangerous to have more children is irresponsible.   It is dangerous to victims too small and too young to protect themselves.  It drains the energy of our society to bear the costs of children who are being tortured, who then often grow up to do the torturing. Maybe you disagree. Maybe you don’t think I’ve set the bar in the right place, but shouldn’t there be a bar somewhere?  At some point, should we dictate to dangerous parents that they can’t have more children?

At bottom, here’s how I think of it.  Every child deserves to have a safe and loving home.  Every child is interconnected with my world.  Every child is, in essence, my child.  It’s time to have a dialogue to determine how to stop this cycle of violence. 


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Category: American Culture, Civil Rights, Education, Good and Evil, Meaning of Life, Psychology Cognition, Reproductive Rights, Uncategorized

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (11)

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  1. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    I doubt the sterilization concepts is workable inthe near future. There are too many reasons, and certain standards defined on a national level. The problem is, that while some forms of child abuse are obvious, others are not, and without a proper investigation of all accusations, people can be (and often are) wrongly convicted.

    It is a common practice now adays for bratty children to call 911 and accuse a parent or step parent of abuse as a way of trying to force the parent to do the childs bidding. There are also accusations made by estranged parents during divorce proceeding.

    I have 2 children, both boys and the oldest one is severely autistic. I have been often accused wrongly by people that have misintrepreted the results of his behaviour as signs of abuse. Quite often autistic children are self injurius, and the general public fails to understand this. Fortunately, After the first investigation by Dept of childres services, we got assistance in helping to manage his behaviour, and the results have been pretty good.

    I think that, before people have children, they should be minimally trained in general child psychology. You don't let someone drive a car until they have learned to drive. Understanding what should be done to guide a child toward matiurity, should be taught to potential parents.

    The problem is that most abusive parents were abused as children. When they become parents, they try to become the antithesis of their own parents by being permissive to the point of not acting as a parent at all, but as a peer. When they find themselves needing to enforce order and discipline, they become frustrated by the childs lack of respect and eventually follow the only role model they know, thier own parents.

    The only way to break this cycle, is to teach them an alternative.

  2. Vicki Baker says:

    Erich, I agree with you that the cycle of violence must end. I am less sure that handing reproductive choices to the justice system is the right solution. You know that many states had forced sterilization programs until after WWII, right? I don't know much of the history, but it's worth looking into before proposing this again. The voluntary system with cash incentives seems a better approach, though I do think the issue of informed consent must be raised.

    I'd like to look at this from another angle. What if you had been in a group of people waiting for an elevator, and a man had suddenly started shouting at, and then hitting, another adult? Everyone in the group would probably have been aware that they were witnessing a completely unambiguous event: an assault. Somebody would have probably called 911 or building security immediately. There would probably have been a police report. (I think the Genovese case is a little different. Everyone was in their own homes, not in a public office building face to face with other witnesses.)

    But when it's an adult hitting a child, the event somehow becomes "ambiguous." Why? I think it's because most people, in this country anyway, still thinking that hitting children is an acceptable and even necessary part of raising them. You can call it spanking or swatting to make it sound better, but there's no escaping that if done to an unwilling adult, it would be assault.

    Now, I don't think that anyone who has spanked a child is an evil child abuser. Nor do I think that a few spankings in an otherwise loving home where realistic boundaries are respected by everyone, will traumatize a child forever. I just don't think it's necessary, and the sooner hitting a child becomes a complete social taboo, the better.

  3. spiny says:

    Why not start a program giving tax credits or cash to men who have vasectomies? It is far easier for men to have this procedure done, and it is increasingly easy to reverse should the man decide to have children. The same program should be extended to women as well, but for greater incentive and/or cash reward. Simple as that. $1000 for vasectomies, $3000 for tubal ligation. Think of the misery and welfare money such a program would save.

  4. Mary says:

    I have watched two abuse situations up-close and here's my frustration: The abuser is never properly dealt with at the court level, even though there are all sorts of laws on the books to protect the abused. The abusers in these situations have anger issues (both court-ordered to go to anger counciling), but are also incredibly slick at lying and manipulating the system. They can behave in the most vile ways with their families (wives as well as children) and when they go to court, they're are the nicest, most wonderful people in the whole world. There are all sorts of third-party witnesses, including extended family, that have seen this behavior, but their testimony is not taken into account when it comes to legally prosecuting the abuser. At least this has been the case in the situations I've seen. What happens is that it becomes "He said, she said, let's not bother to see what is best for the children – they must be divided up fairly between the parents, just like M & M's." Some of us are aching to help, but our hands are tied.

    Sterilization is a fine idea, if you can prove the abuse; however, there is nothing to stop the abuser from marrying someone else with children and subjecting the step-children to this horrifying behavior.

  5. grumpypilgrim says:

    The Bible says, "an eye for an eye," so why not just have court-approved torture for people who beat up children? Give those parasites back some of the abuse they dish out and maybe fewer of them would do what they do.

    Then again, I wonder how many of them were themselves abused as chidren and now need counseling far more than they need punishment. I wonder to what extent child abuse is a symptom of other problems in our society…the growing gulf between rich and poor, for example (though wealth is no guarantee of an abuse-free childhood), or persistent racial inequalities. I'm not suggesting we should go soft on child abusers, but I always worry that the solutions that are proposed to social problems are merely addressing the symptoms and not the underlying causes. Do we know what causes people to abuse children? Until we do, I don't see that sterilization, or any other form of penalty, will solve the problem. To the contrary, it merely adds one more punishment *after abuse occurs* — a strategy that is notoriously ineffective. Wouldn't it be better to identify and attack the underlying causes of child abuse, so that maybe we could stop it from happening in the first place?

  6. Ebonmuse says:

    I can all too readily imagine the horrors you're describing, Erich, but I find I just can't support the idea of compelled sterilization. No matter how bad the abuser is, I can't agree that this is a power the state should have. The idea of forcibly violating a person's bodily integrity in this way shocks my conscience.

    I have an alternative suggestion: Why don't we increase prison sentences for child abusers? If they're in prison, they can't have any more children.

  7. Colleen Hunter says:

    I think that the steralisation of constant abusers, is a good option, but there will undoubtedly be those out there that say..

    "What about the rights of the parent to have more children".. there is always someone trying to stand up for those who do wrong..

    Personaly i think they should have the children taken away and adopted out to a family that is caring and loving and will not abuse them..

    Unfortunately the prison systems are under enough stress as it is, over crowded and just not enough space for them..

    It will take a long time to find the right solution.. Sending them to prison anyway at some point they will be out again, and unless there has been some major change in their personality or psychological make up.. they are just going to re offend..

  8. Johannah says:

    Thank you for your courageous piece. I agree with you 100%. The rights of children should absolutely surpass the rights of adults, and this includes the right to not be born into a hell that is society is aware of. The cost is firstly a tragic life of pain for the child and secondly a high cost to society–it is blatantly clear that we are not capable of taking care of these children and righting the wrongs done to them. I've seen it first-hand: I was a CASA to a 9-year-old boy in the Oakland foster care system, his mother having had 3 children, her first at 13 while she was a foster child herself. Tragic life begets tragic life–the mother could not be expected to have made better choices than her own drug-addicted mother, but certainly she should have been prevented from: a) having a child at the age of 13, certainly when she was clearly at high-risk for pregnancy in her situation, b) having further children when her first child ended up in foster care. The mother is still in jail. The child suffers. His one constant in his life? An overburdened social worker, constant moving from foster home to foster home, and no one sane adult that stays in his life longer than a few months. I couldn't do it more than a year–the emotional cost of witnessing this day after day was too high to my marriage and myself. I will probably never forgive myself for not being able to save this child, although I most likely would have never been able to.

    Tell me why the mother is allowed to retain her reproductive rights. Nuts and bolts–We can't begin to solve our problems of poverty and crime with the population we have without capping the overflow. If there were 5 people living on this planet with at least 30 miles between their tents, my argument may be different. However, we live in overcrowded tribes. And we have to protect the weakest of those tribes. We cannot take care of all of these children. So why aren't we doing something to stop the overflow? And why are so few people talking about this?

  9. CS says:

    I agree 100%. I am so glad someone has the guts to say this. People want the freedom to do whatever they want, but don't want to deal with the consequences that follow unabridged freedom of reproduction. It bothers me that this is lumped into the 'pro-whatever' category. We should have the freedom to do many things on this earth, but I don't believe reproducing is one of them. Human children are born with few instincts, and the few they have do not protect them from obviously unfit parents. I do believe women have the right to choose, however, if you are unfit to deal with the repercussions of that choice, your privileges should be taken away.

  10. Two things about this. We assume there is a "right to procreate", but this is a fallacy based on deeply encoded drives that come with the package when we are born. The assertion "because I wanna" is taken to absurd heights because to say otherwise is to go against "nature" in the most fundamental way. This is DNA insisting on continuation and has nothing to do with legal rights or morality.

    Secondly, we have a problem with selecting people to sterilize because standards change. Sure, abuse is fairly clear-cut, but what about, say, cult membership or certain educational foibles that make certain people unable to fit well into society? What constitutes abuse? The standard changes, especially when we get into the area of mental abuse.

    So a solution—which will not be implemented because right now we don't have the technology or money to do it properly and people will scream and resist to the point of revolution—would be to sterilize everyone.

    Harvest eggs from little girls, collect sperm from young boys, file them in a bank, and sterilize them. Everyone. If you then want to have children, it is not possible then that it be an impulse of the moment. The "hots" won't circumvent judgment. The couple will have to go to the bank and withdraw sperm and ovum and quite consciously MAKE A BABY. There will be time, there will be an opportunity to reflect, to consider, maybe even go to counseling.

    But the way it is now, babies happen when people are just screwing around, and the MOST unsuitable people can become parents, and our system more or less forces them to "shoulder their responsibilities" in ways that practically guarantee that many of these folks are going to react negatively to a status that any serious reflection would have told them they never wanted.

    But alas, this also wouldn't be very romantic…

  11. something says:

    Good article. I’m not sure I entirely agree with you, though sterilization does has some appeal. Although, as others have said this only addresses the problem after the abuse occurs. Also, after the abuse does occur I’ve heard a lot of people say the abused should ‘just get over it’ or ‘be thankful they’re alive’. The media always expresses outrage when a child is abused or killed, but society does seem to enable the abusers. I can say that personally, no one took me seriously when I told them what my mother did. And that personally the emotional abuse was much, much worse than the physical, though I know that doesn’t hold true for everyone.
    I like the idea that Niklaus Pfirsig put forth, about training parents-to-be in child psychology. The only fault I can see is that the training in child psychology itself could be used to abuse, or escape prosecution for abuse, but that applies to most everything and I think it would still do more good than harm.

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